Milestones, and more headaches

Just a few quick notes – I have finally gotten moving again, but only for a short while – I am thwarted in the hunt for a Chinese visa again. But more on that below.

There was a rumour going around Nomad’s that the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border would be closed for a few days, due to the SCO summit taking place. I decided to head for the border anyway, since it was only 20km away. Passed through there absolutely no problem at all, the only delay was stopping to talk to a young guy who wanted to practise some English. I didn’t fill in any customs form, hopefully that’s no problem when leaving. All foot passengers were going through a hall with lots of people and X-ray machines, but I just went to the booth that was processing cars and drivers. No hassles, no bribes, no problems. I have decided not to register with OVIR, as there is some indication I don’t have to – but I’ll have $20 on me for a bribe when I leave, just in case. Besides, the OVIR office was closed on Thursday (of course!).

I have now passed two milestones – today marks six months on the road, and on my first day out from Bishkek, I passed 10,000km. A very long way. So I stopped for a celebration of some peanut M&Ms, and a swig of water…but not too much, I was down to my last 200mL. Then back on the bike, and turning the cranks again. Not even halfway yet.

The land-use patterns changed dramatically just over the border. Gone were all the little villages, and fields full of people cultivating vegetables, etc. Instead there are almost no houses, and vast fields, with no fences or buildings – just the odd mechanical harvester. Very strange, and means I have to take more care with planning my water, as there were few options available.

Made it to Almaty, not much in the way of good, cheap places to stay here. But I’ve got somewhere that is acceptable (just, paying extra for the shower is a bit rough). The city feels very modern, probably the most modern city I’ve been in since Vienna. I even found a supermarket with a large selection of current English-language books and newspapers. There is a downside to all this modernity though, as I found out when I was wandering the streets at 9:30pm on Wednesday, trying to find a bottle of water. I’m used to places where there are always shops open, kiosks, etc, are everywhere. Any time, any place they think they might be able to sell something. I’ve forgotten how to survive in the modern urban jungle, how to deal with limited opening hours. I’m sure I’ll get back into it.

But the city seems nice enough, and it now looks like I may be here longer than I planned. My plan was to try and get a Chinese visa, using a travel agency if needed. The Chinese embassy was no longer at the address I had gotten online (and via the LP), so I tried a travel agency. They told me that very recently the Chinese embassy has started insisting on a letter of employment, proving I live/work in Almaty. Other travel agencies have told me the same thing. They told me to try and plead my case with the Chinese consul.

They did provide me with the new address of the Chinese embassy, so I went up there. They were closed Thursday (of course they were!), so I went back on Friday morning. Opening hours are 9:00-12:00, so I got there at 8:00. Hmmm, no-one here yet, cool, only wait an hour…wait what does this notice stuck on the door in Russian say? As I’m just getting the gist of it, someone with excellent English comes over to confirm what I’ve guessed – the embassy is closed all week. Grrrrrr….

So I can’t even find out if they will issue me a visa or not, until Monday. No doubt things will be a zoo on Monday, since they’ve been closed for a week. Have to go down there extra early. If they can’t/won’t issue me a visa, I’m not quite sure what to do. Potentially I could get a train or flight to Astana, the new capital, and try there. If I can’t get a visa issued anywhere in Kazakhstan, I’ll need to go somewhere else – back to Bishkek? Or fly to Uzbekistan…but then I have to wait two weeks to get a visa for there…or fly to Hong Kong, where all visas are simple? Not cheap to do that.

So now, staying an extra week in Bishkek and paying $100 doesn’t seem like quite such a bad option after all. I could go back to Bishkek, but then would need either a new visa to come back through here, or I could go direct to China. Don’t really want to do that though. I think I will stay here until Monday, go to the Chinese embassy very early, then make a decision based on what happens there.

One bright spot – Ramstor has copies of the new Harry Potter book, but it costs 5600KZT – about $45US. Not quite sure if I want to pay that or not, especially since I don’t have any other travellers here to swap books with. Don’t want to spend that much, then just leave it sitting in a dodgy hotel room, probably to be thrown away.

Almost ready to move again!

Quick post for some good news – my replacement barbag turned up yesterday, and my Kazakh visa was processed no problems. This means that I can get moving again! My Kazakh visa starts on the 14th, so the plan is to leave here on the 14th, hopefully get to Almaty in 2 days, and then get my Chinese visa sorted out the same week, and keep moving towards China. Will go for a 2-3 day easy loop ride for the next couple of days, try and get back into shape.

Must also make a special mention of the Pizza Party we had at Nomad’s last night. Emilie did the organisation, I just ate pizza. I don’t think I ever thought I would be having a pizza party in Bishkek, but there you go.

Pizza Party at Nomads

I’ve also uploaded a few photos of Kyrgzstan, will add a couple more from my loop to Ala-Archa in a little while.

Questions on my mind, and progress

Progress is being made! I now have a New Zealand passport, with a Kyrgyz visa valid until 2/9/07, so I am legal in this country. The Kazakh embassy accepted my application for a Kazakh tourist visa, starting 14/8/07. I should get that back on the 9th. I then only need to get a Chinese visa, and after talking to a Dutchman standing in line at the Kazakh embassy, it turns out I can get one quite quickly using a travel agency in Almaty. This means that if I have any problems getting a Chinese visa here, it should be no problem getting one in Kazakhstan. Almaty is expensive, but stopping just a few days to get the visa is OK.

The upshot of all this is that I can get moving again next week! Things will no doubt be a bit tough the first few days, after doing hardly any riding in the last few weeks. Since Tashkent there has been a lot of time hanging around, waiting for visas/parts/packages/whatever. I’m still waiting for my new barbag to get delivered here, I can only hope for the best. Although I am enjoying meeting lots of other travellers in Bishkek, I’m also looking forward to being back on the road, and heading to a new country.

For something different, here’s some of the random questions/thoughts that go through my head these days:

  • Can anybody explain to me the popularity of fishing vests, like these, that I seem to see people wearing everywhere – mainly not when fishing.
  • In a similar vein, camouflage clothing – I frequently see people dressed fully in camouflage clothing. For soldiers this is fine, but most of them don’t look like soldiers. My theory is that the Kyrgyz army kicked out a whole lot of Russians, but let them keep their clothes.
  • Why does a 500mL bottle of vodka cost only a little bit more than a 500mL bottle of beer? E.g. a beer might cost 30 som (~$0.75), while a bottle of vodka costs 40 som (~$1). No wonder they’re all drunk on vodka
  • Interestingly enough, Kyrgyz people seem relatively time-conscious (contrast with the Middle East, where time is irrelevant). But none of them wear watches. As a result, I am asked what the time is at least once per day. Yes, that’s right, I do still wear a watch. Handy to know what the date is in these countries, with visas to think about.
  • The National Museum in Bishkek is rather disturbing – a whole floor is devoted to Lenin. It’s just weird walking around, looking at every book Lenin ever wrote, in every languauge it was translated into. On the ground floor was a cordoned-off section where they had a large carpet with a portrait of Stalin. I think that they never took it all that seriously in the past, so they don’t take it too seriously now. I would have loved a picture, but they were charging an extra 2 euros to take photos.

I had also been wondering about why all of Bishkek seemed to being painted/renovated/re-paved/etc. I thought maybe the Bishkekis just liked doing maintenance in the summer – but it turns out that it’s for the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which is holding a summit here. There was talk of restrictions on movement, and more police and passport checks, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much difference. Hope it stays that way, I’ve had enough of passport checks by illiterate policemen in Uzbekistan.

Anyways, another week in this town, then on the road again! Maybe. We’ll see how it goes with visas, and at the Family Medical Clinic tomorrow (nothing major, just ongoing stomach problems).

Persona Grata

The physical entity known as Lindsay Hill is now a legal entity once more! Yesterday morning I collected my replacement passport from the British Consul here in Bishkek. I only held it in my hands for half an hour, as I then had to go and hand it in to the Kyrgyz Consular Service, to get a replacement Kyrgyz visa. That takes 1 week, or 3 days if you pay double ($72). They got me to write a letter explaining why I wanted a new visa – reasonably obvious with my blank passport, and police report, but form must be followed.

All going well, I will be able to pick that up on Friday morning, and race out to the Kazakh embassy, and try and hand my application in. It’s a bit of a mess there, and it took me over an hour yesterday just to get through the queue to get an application form. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t have my passport. Luckily some English/Russian speakers helped a bit, but the guard was still an idiot, and couldn’t really work it out. But now at least I can pay the money to the bank in the next few days, and get the form filled in, so that when I go there, it will just be a matter of fighting through the queue, and getting my application handed in.

I then need to try and get a Chinese visa too – no idea how long that will take. I think it will probably take me up to two weeks to get things sorted out, and then I can get back on the road, heading to Kazakhstan. At least one bright spot is that it seems that the Kazakhs will give me a full tourist visa here, unlike the short transit visa I got in Tashkent. Of course, nothing certain there until I actually have the sticker in my passport.

I spent 9 days riding from Bishkek up to Issyk-Kul, and doing a loop around the lake, before coming back to Bishkek. All very pleasant, except for the main road, at least as far as the Torugart turnoff – it’s very busy, especially on a Sunday, and the road quality is variable, sometimes quite narrow. You get pushed off the road into the gravel a few times. Kyrgyz drivers don’t really understand the power and danger of speeding vehicles. At least another two decades to get any sort of cultural education of good driving I think.

The southern side of the lake was nicer, with the road frequently near the water. Camped near the water a couple of times. One day I was riding along, seeking some shelter from a very nasty squall that was coming up, when a Land Rover came by, with a Swiss couple and baby on board. I ended up camping with them on the beach, and they cooked me a lovely dinner, and we sheltered inside the car from the cold wind. Food, warmth, good company, what else could I want. And then the wind dropped right around bedtime – perfect.

The early morning swim the next day was rather refreshing, but I guess not as cold as a lake at 1600m could be. A touch salty too – that combined with the small waves, and sandy beach, made it feel like I was by the sea – quite nice when you’re thousands of kilometres from the ocean.

I stayed in a homestay in Karakol run by an old Russian woman, in an old Soviet apartment block. Very nice indeed, made to feel very welcome. The second day, when I was eating my fantastic breakfast, she even put together a special package of pancakes for my lunch that day. More than made up for the fact that Karakol is a pretty dull sort of a place. Most roads in the town were just dirt tracks, and there was little in the city that stood out.

But the people could be good – I was having dinner by myself, and got dragged over to a group of Kyrgyz Telecom network engineers, who were having a leaving do for their boss. A couple more rounds of vodka than I would have liked, and I was trying to work out how to escape, but luckily they declared that 21:00 was late for them, and it was time to go to bed. I was happy about that, as it could have started getting messy. But nice guys, with a few speaking a bit of English, and they gave me translations of the toasts, which are taken fairly seriously here.

So more time to kill in Bishkek, but it’s OK – I’m quite happy here, the place I’m staying at is nice, and I can eat all the simit I like from the Turkish supermarket.

The lighter side

After the trials and tribulations of the last week, I thought I would post a few random musings/observations on Kyrgyzstan for today’s discourse.

Language: Someone asked me the other day what language you use here. My answer was “Whatever I feel like”. That’s a bit flippant, but there is some truth to it. Many people here speak Russian, Kyrgyz, and in service industries, English. I know a little Russian, and a little Turkish, which happens to be related to Kyrgyz. So sometimes I use some Russian, sometimes some Kyrgyz, and sometimes English. If all else fails sign language usually works well. Most shops have calculators for telling you the price of things, that helps a fair bit. English is growing here, but it’s still from low numbers. Russian is the true lingua franca, and I wish I had spent more time trying to learn it.

Women: I have to say, this one really surprised me. Central Asian women are hot. I really didn’t expect that. It’s not just the Russian-descent women either. There are many good looking Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz women around. The main difference is that the Russian women tend to wear almost nothing at all. Especially practical in the heat here, and I for one welcome it. The Uzbek women tend to dress more conservatively, but very nicely, with great traditional dresses, with a touch of style to them. The only bit I can’t work out is that the late teens/early twenties Russian girls will be walking about in a boob tube, hot pants smaller than my underpants, and heels – but they might be out with their mother, who will look like a traditional Russian babushka. Long print dress, headscarf, the works. It’s a bit odd, seeing the juxtaposition – traditional Russian values next to something presumably American-inspired . Furthermore, I haven’t decided if it’s related to economics, the lack of McDonalds, genetics, or just general lifestyle, but most young women here are slim. Not so much of the Muffin top in evidence here.

Russian couples dressing up for an evening out: This is a bit of a funny one. Around early evening, as I wander around the town, I see various couples obviously on their way out to some dinner/party/club/movie/whatever. The women obviously put in some time and effort, finding a nice, suitably short dress to wear, with heels, and makeup – beyond the usual amounts anyway. They are not looking overly different to young women in say England – although probably slimmer and better looking (see above). So what does Russian man do? Well, he finds a clean pair of jeans, the tighter the better, pulls them up as high as they can go – it’s important that your shoes and socks are fully showing – and then puts on a T-shirt, tucked in. I figure that if I lived here, and wore decent clothes when out on the town, I would either have women falling all over me, or I would get beaten up by the Russian Mafia, for moving in on their girls. Probably both.

Kyrgyz man, and underpants: It would seem that Kyrgyz man does not wear simple cotton boxer shorts. I spent ages wandering around Dordoi market yesterday, looking for simple cotton boxers. Dordoi is actually a pretty good market, but what tends to happen in these large markets is that everyone sells the same crap. I could find tight-fitting boxers, fat man boxers (honestly, I am not making this up), synthetic material boxers, but no plain cotton ones. Later I did find some cotton ones, but they came in sizes 1, 2 or 3 – what on earth do those sizes mean over here in the real world? And they were all sealed up in indestructible plastic, so I couldn’t get them out. At $5 a pair, they were too expensive also. I shall keep searching.

Drunkenness in public: You do see a fair bit of this in Central Asia. Many Russians have left, but vodka has very much stayed, and is very cheap. I walked past a pub at 8:55 this morning, and there were already people having a beer. Seeing very drunk people is not uncommon. Yesterday there was a man lying on the ground near my guesthouse, on his back, with his pants around his ankles. Thankfully he was still wearing his underpants. Riding around, you get many offers of vodka – people don’t always quite understand why you might refuse, just because you want to cover another 50km in 35 degree heat.

And now I am off to the rugby – for all those who may follow in my footsteps to Bishkek, and wish to watch international rugby, or any other international sport, try the Metro, on Chui, a couple of blocks west of Beta Stores. It’s the main ex-pat hangout. I had some trouble searching online for a place to watch the rugby in Bishkek – one of the top 10 results was an earlier post on my website. Sigh. But the Metro showed the game last week. Beer was a little expensive at ~$2/70som per pint, but that’s not as much of a ripoff as some other ex-pat bars (The Great Game in Tashkent, I’m looking at you here).

Tomorrow I will finally get back on the bike, and head to Issyk-Kul, to do a big lap of the lake. I will come back here in maybe 10-14 days, hopefully to get my passport, etc. Probably have at least another week here sorting out visas. Previously I’d never had a rest day in my tent – but here I’ve just had over a week in my tent. Nice place I’m at though, Nomad’s Home – highly recommended if you’re passing through here.

Always look on the bright side of life…

I’ve been thinking about the positive aspects of what’s happened, and here’s some of the things I’ve come up with:

  • The loss of all the photos means that there won’t be a slide-show at the end. Dad was worried he was going to have to sit through a long, boring slideshow.
  • Dropping weight – all cyclists are always trying to reduce the weight they are carrying, and I’ve dropped 2-3kg at a stroke!
  • New version of the Ortlieb barbag is now out – the mesh pocket on the front of the old one wasn’t quite right, and I see that has now been changed
  • I’m sure there’s a few others I can come up with too…

Things are starting to get sorted out now though. Passport application has been sent away to London, will be interesting to see if it comes through OK. Not having a proper witness is a problem. The British Honorary Consulate here signed it, and put his official stamp on it – hopefully it works out OK, and it doesn’t get delayed.

Have also done shopping for an MP3 player and a camera. Unfortunately electronics here are quite a lot more expensive than China, and I’ll be in China soon…but I have to get a camera for the next few weeks in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The camera I got was more than twice as expensive as what Amazon has listed. Maybe towards the end of my time in China I’ll upgrade to the latest Canon model that I want. Had to settle for a Nikon Coolpix L11 here, the only other options were Sony, and I don’t want MemoryStick stuff – I want something that uses SD flash, as it can mix and match with my MP3 player. Plus a later camera will probably also use it, and I can re-use the cards.

I think I’ve almost done with my shopping now, so will probably stay in Bishkek one more day, then head off on a loop around Issyk-Kul for a couple of weeks. Hopefully I won’t get lost – maps are easy enough to get, but no-one sells compasses! Or so I thought…then I was wandering around the souvenir shops, and I am now the proud owner of an ex-Soviet Army compass with wrist strap. Combination souvenir and functional item. No chance of getting a GPS here. I also bought a Russian harmonica, for those quiet nights around the campsite. Sounds a bit funny, but that could just be me.

So things are working out, and I’ll be OK. Will order a new barbag from the UK, hopefully that will be here by the time I get back to Bishkek. Must take better care of it in future though.

Thanks for the messages of support – it is much appreciated.

Dude, Where’s My Bag?

“Umm, Heather, where’s my bag?”

Look around under the chair, behind the computer, around the Internet cafe, where is it? I can’t see my barbag, and as I look around more, and still don’t see it, things seem to slow down, in that car-crash way. What if I left it at the restaurant? Run out the door, back down the road to the restaurant, but they’re closed. Back to the Internet cafe, no it’s not here

Well, what was in it? My passport, a few hundred dollars, my GPS, my camera with ALL my photos since London, my travel journal from Turkmenistan to here, a credit and a debit card and my MP3 player. So only the most important stuff to me, that’s why it was in the barbag, rather than at the hotel. Bugger

There was a small chance I had left it at the restaurant, but checking back the next day, they hadn’t seen it. They were nice people there, with an honest feel to them, and I believe that they would have given it back if I had left it there.

That left only the Internet cafe – someone must have taken it from under my chair. It’s easy enough to get engrossed in what you’re doing, or possibly it was when I was talking to Heather. The following day, when trying to get some assistance from them to put up a sign offering a reward for return of the documents/memory cards, they were appallingly rude, and I suspect them of being in collusion with whoever took it – it was possibly dragged back into a back room, based on where I was sitting.

The nearest NZ embassy is in Moscow. There is not even a British embassy or consulate in Kyrgyzstan. What to do? On my way back to the restaurant, I saw a couple of other touring cyclists, so stopped to talk to them (bike touring works like that). After a bit of a chat, it turned out the cafe we were at was run by the honoray British consul. So I had a chat to him, and he’s a nice guy, and offered good advice. I’ve spoken to Barbara at the NZ embassy in Moscow, and she’s told me to apply for a new passport through London. Apparently that will take around two weeks. But no-one within 5,000km has known me for more than five years! No worries, the consul will help out with the referee stuff. He can also help out with providing an address for receiving goods.

And things could be worse – I’ve got money in a few locations, and I still have an HSBC debit card – so it’s not like I’m starving on the street. I have money, access to more money, and most of my stuff, especially the bike! I could get emergency travel documents, but they would only really let me go straight home, and where’s the fun in that? I probably wouldn’t be able to get the necessary visas without a full passport.

So the plan is to apply for a new passport tomorrow, do a bit more shopping getting replacement items, like a camera, compass, etc., then I’ll head off to the Issyk-Kul area for a couple of weeks. I’ll then come back via here, hopefully pick up my new passport and credit card, plus a new barbag. Or that’s the plan anyway.

One problem will be visas – I had Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Chinese visas in that passport, and I’ll need to get them again. Could be a bit of a pain, but it’s really just a matter of time and money – and I have both. Could all be worse, at least I wasn’t physically harmed.

All a bit of a shame, as the ride up from Osh to Bishkek was one of the best rides of my life – especially the last few days, riding up over 3,000m passes, across the jailoo, yurts and horses everywhere, just fantastic. And then a drop of 2,500m in one afternoon on good roads – it was about as good as it can get. But shit happens, and life goes on, and I just need to deal with that. Things will be alright, and I’m calm about it.

Rolling again!

New day, new city, new country. After far too much resting up in Uzbekistan (10 riding days out of 29 in the country!), I am back on the road again, and am now in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. I set off from Tashkent last week, spending three days riding to Qo’qon, before getting a taxi back to Tashkent. My stuff had turned up, so I collected that, watched the rugby, stayed in the best bed I’ve slept in for months (flashpackers visiting Tashkent, check out the Poytaht Hotel), then got a taxi back to Qo’qon the next day.

Some fun on the way out riding up the Qamchik pass. Took me a fair while to get to the top, then when I got there I was stopped by 4 Army guys. They started hassling me about photos – apparently you’re not supposed to take photos anywhere on the whole pass. I thought it was just around the checkpoints and tunnels. I’d taken a photo looking back down, and they found that on my camera. So what do they do? Take another photo of me with the camera of course! One soldier wanted to buy the camera, and was getting a bit annoyed when I wouldn’t sell at any price, until someone else told him to back off, and I was sent on my way. The tunnels are no big deal to ride through there, the longer one – 1100m – is reasonably lit. Then rolled downhill until I found a nice abandoned building to sleep in. Too close to the road, a bit noisy though.

Interesting trip back in the car. Two railway workers were sharing the car, and after a round of introductions, passing around the photos and phrasebooks, we stopped at one of the roadside stalls. I thought for water, but no…shortly three cups were fashioned by cutting the bottoms off some 1L PET bottles, and beer was handed around. 8:25 in the morning, I’d had no breakfast, here have a cup of beer. Hmmm…at least the driver wasn’t drinking, probably just as well considering the excessive speeds on the way to Tashkent.

Bit of a miscommunication with someone else, and ended up needing to get a last-minute place in Tashkent. Stayed in the most upmarket place I’ve stayed in for a long time. The previous three nights I’d slept in a ditch, an abandoned building, and a flea-pit with cockroaches included at no extra cost. So when I slid into those clean smooth white high thread-count sheets, under cool air-conditioned air – I went out like a light, slept for 10 hours. The best breakfast of the tour was included the next day, and I made the most of it, eating maybe 5 courses. The Central Asian Youth Chess Championships was on at the time, with many of the contestants also staying there – I’m glad to see that miserable attempts at facial hair are common across 16 year old boys all around the world!

Back to Qo’qon to pick up the bike the next day, this time travelling with a mother and daughter. On finding out I was of a similar age to the daughter, and single, the mother got that glint in her eye – but not to be I’m afraid, gold teeth just don’t cut it for me. Later that night I stopped at a chaikhana to eat, and in hope of a place to stay. Fantastic place, and I met the whole family. Everyone came over for a chat, the boys, mum, dad, the cooks, everybody. Again, on finding out I was single, I was offered the choice of the girls to marry. Unfortunately they were just a little young – perhaps 16, not my scene. They offered me a place to sleep before I even asked – I was given a traditional Uzbek table, with an enclosure around it, and a water channel running below it. Very cool. So to any cyclists out there, the chaikhana on the left at the end of the woods after Boz, a little after the 322 kilometer marker on the road to Andijan, that’s the place to go.

That left me with around 75km to the border this morning, all fairly uneventful. For some reason the Uzbek customs officer didn’t like me though, and X-rayed all my panniers, and wanted to count all my $US. I had declared exactly what I had, but for some reason he wanted to count it. Had to get it out of various stashes around the place. A pain, and I can’t think for the life of me why they would want to count my money when I’m leaving the country. Oh and for any other travellers wondering, there were no questions about hotel registration slips. Just as well, since mine obviously don’t all add up.

Kyrgyzstan customs were very pleasant though, just short wait to write down my details, stamp my passport, and say “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.” That’s more like the sort of treatment visitors should be getting. Looking forward to far fewer police around too…

A day or two here in Osh, then I may be offline for a couple of weeks, depending on how quickly I head up to Bishkek. No real hurry there.